Viktoria: Sundance Review

Sundance Film Festival
A striking first film about a young child without a belly button that explores the relationship of Bulgarians with their country, history and families.

Talented Bulgarian newcomer Maya Vitkova's feature debut stars Irmena Chichikova as the mother of a child without a belly button.

An unwanted Bulgarian baby girl is born without a belly button in Viktoria, the striking feature debut of writer-director Maya Vitkova.

Conceived in 1979, exactly ten years before the Fall of Communism, the birth and life of the titular protagonist is used as a striking gateway into the complex love-hate relationship of Bulgarians with their homeland both before and after the pivotal events of 1989. Far from a navel-gazing exercise, this confident first film manages to suggest the often-contradicting feelings of a people by looking at just one small family -- and not a very talkative household at that.

The Sundance-Rotterdam-Goteborg trifecta kicked off the film’s festival run, which should include numerous Eastern European and young-director showcases and some niche arthouse action is not out of the question.

Vitkova, an executive producer on Kamen Kalev’s 2008 festival darling Eastern Plays, kicks off the proceedings with archival material that provides the context for the political situation in 1979 (Governor Reagan, Thatcher, Khomeini, Arafat…), before switching to the bout of sex that would lead to the creation of Viktoria by her parents, Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) and Ivan (Dimo Dinov).

Boryana and her hubby live with her die hard-Commie mother (Mariana Krumova) and even sleep in the same room, with Vitkova eliciting some wry chuckles from the material, like when Boryana admits she wants to escape to the West before having children and Ivan asks her what she’ll do with momma, to which she dryly replies: “She’s a Party member, not a mother.”

Despite her dreams and the necessary precautions (another source of understated humor), Boryana doesn’t manage to flee the country first and finds herself pregnant of a child she doesn’t want in a country she doesn't want to be in. Though generally shot in an almost hyperrealist vein -- Viktoria was co-produced by Romania and the Romanian New Wave is a clear esthetic reference -- the film is shot through with surreal images, such as when the pregnant Boryana hears the music of a Labor Day parade and the film cuts to a shot inside the womb where the unborn Viktoria “hears” the muffled sound of the parade as well.  

Born without a belly button, Viktoria (Katerina Angelova) is elected the Baby of the Decade by the upper echelons of the Party and receives extravagant gifts that include an apartment, a car and a Batman-like, red-dial phone with a direct line to Bulgaria’s President, Todor Zhivkov (Georgi Spasov).   

Fast forward to 1989, the last year of Communism, when Viktoria (Daria Vitkova), is a commanding 9-year-old who runs her primary school based on her physical superiority. Vitkova explains the power relations in a breathtakingly simple but effective shot of the little girl snapping her fingers, which results in all her classmates, neatly lined up, military-style, simultaneously lifting their shirts to expose their belly buttons.

Though Viktoria’s special because she has no trace of ever having been linked to her mother, she isn’t without connections: Her phone wire, which attaches her to the President, is her umbilical cord. It’s the perfect image of an apparatchik: Someone without parental loyalty or influence who feels directly connected to the leader of her Great Nation. But when Communism finally crumbles and she receives a personal call from Zhivkov to tell her “It’s all over,” Viktoria takes a pair of scissors and has to cut the cord -- it’s time for her to figure out how to stand on her own, which, as the film beautifully suggests in its third act, might not involve her distant parents but does involve her family (the age-old traditions of the land finally prevail over the temporary ruling class).   

The general tone is one of hushed poetry and quiet drollness with an occasionally absurdist edge. Crucially, the film doesn't want to be funny simply to avoid being constantly bleak; quite the contrary is true, as humor is used to highlight the very points Vitkova is trying to make.

The understated acting of the ensemble is matched by its austere and precise assembly on the technical side. Though over 2.5 hours long, editor Alexander Etimov allows the material to breathe and gives audiences just enough time to come to their own conclusions. Krum Rodriguez’s beautifully composed, diffusely lit cinematography and the crisp soundscapes are the other below-the-line standouts.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Viktoria Films, Mandragora
Cast: Irmena Chichikova, Daria Vitkova, Kalina Vitkova, Mariana Krumova, Dimo Dimov, Georgi Spasov, Katerina Angelova
Writer-Director: Maya Vitkova
Producers: Maya Viktkova, Anca Puiu
Director of photography: Krum Rodriguez
Production designer: Rin Yamamura
Music: Kaloyan Dimitrov
Editor: Alexander Etimov
No rating, 155 minutes.